QotD: “In Britain in 2018, women trying to hold public meetings to talk about politics and the law are being subjected to intimidation and threats. The police are investigating a bomb threat against one of those meetings”
[On the 20th June] some women got together in a room to talk about law and politics and sex and gender. The meeting, in Hastings, was organised by a group called A Woman’s Place UK, which is concerned about the way politics and public debate is developing with regard to the legal rights of transgender people and women.
This stuff is complicated and, to many people, obscure. I’ve written about these issues quite a bit here, and while quite a lot of people seem keen to read about the transgender debate, I’m under no illusions that this has broken through into wider public consciousness. Most people, I suspect, haven’t really engaged with the detail of this debate, though that might start to change a bit next month when the Government launches a consultation on overhauling the law that allows someone to legally change their gender.
Given that a lot of people haven’t engaged with the detail of the gender debate, let me offer a catchier description of what happened in Hastings this week. Some women organised a meeting to talk about their legal rights. Someone threatened to blow up that meeting with a bomb. The threat in question was made on Twitter a few days ago. I became aware of it shortly afterwards, and I am sorry to say that my initial reaction, was to think: “Just some idiot on Twitter. Doesn’t mean anything.” Sussex Police took a different view. They are taking the threat seriously and have begun an investigation. A Sussex Police spokesman said:
We are not disclosing details of the investigation or of our discussions with the organisers, however the threat is being taken seriously and is not currently being linked to any other event or offence.
What does it say about how strongly the women at that meeting last night feel about this issue that they went along despite such a threat? It’s not as if this was a one-off either: as Judith Green of WPUK wrote here earlier this year, Woman’s Place meetings are frequently the subject of aggressive protests from people who say they are representing transgender people. Yet women turn up anyway, in large numbers. And what does it say about public and political debate about gender issues that this stuff has become normal and almost unremarkable?
In Britain in 2018, women trying to hold public meetings to talk about politics and the law are being subjected to intimidation and threats. The police are investigating a bomb threat against one of those meetings. Yet politicians and large sections of the media are silent. Would that be the case if any other group or community were subject to such threats and intimidation? Why aren’t politicians, of all parties, shouting from the rooftops about this?
It’s not as if they don’t know or don’t care. Since I started writing about the gender debate in February, I’ve lost count of the number of MPs and other political people (of all parties and ranks, from policy advisers to Cabinet ministers) who have privately told me they are worried about the nature of this debate and worried about the implications of policy. Yet almost all of those people have also said they are not willing to talk about this publicly, for fear of the criticism and vitriol they believe they would face from people who believe the interests of transgender people are best served by shouting down questions with allegations of transphobia and bigotry. I understand that silence, but it has costs. When the people who are supposed to speak for ordinary people – and the rules that allow those people to exercise their basic democratic freedoms – stay silent, they leave a vacuum of leadership and moral courage that can be filled with hostility and fear.
I’ll end by repeating the basic facts of this story once more, in the hope that some of the politicians who talk so much about free speech and equality and fairness finally pluck up the courage to talk about this. Some women had a meeting to talk about their legal rights. Someone threatened to blow up the meeting with a bomb. The police are investigating that threat and say it is being “taken seriously”. And this happened in Britain in 2018.
Part of New York’s radical press, the Rat combined left-wing politics with nudie covers and pornographic cartoons – directed, of course, by a male staff. In January 1970, a group of feminists ousted the editorial team and turned the paper over to their own concerns. This was where Robin Morgan first published her essay Goodbye to All That, a ferocious blast against the sexism of the left: “Goodbye to the male-dominated peace movement… Goodbye to the illusion of strength when you run hand in hand with your oppressors… Goodbye to Hip culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution.”
Morgan didn’t imagine that the men considered the Rat takeover significant. (“What the hell, let the chicks do an issue; maybe it’ll satisfy ’em for a while, it’s a good controversy, and it’ll maybe sell papers” runs an unoverheard conversation that I’m sure took place at some point last week,” she wrote.) But to the feminists, it mattered because Rat represented the “good guys who think they know what Women’s Lib, as they so chummily call it, is all about – who then proceed to degrade and destroy women by almost everything they say and do.” Rat stood for the political world where Stokely Carmichael could joke that “the only position for women” in activism “is prone”, and where Eldridge Cleaver could write about raping women as an “insurrectionary act” against the “white man’s law”. What Morgan took aim at in Goodbye to All That is what today I’d call ‘brocialism’ – a dismissive portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘socialism’ which describes the meeting place between left-wing ideology and virulent machismo.
Brocialism is the politics of the left that puts women last. Brocialism is when it just so happens, coincidentally, that the politicians who attract the most hatred for being ‘right-wing’ are also the female ones. Brocialism is saying we’ll get around to sex equality, but the revolution comes first.
Brocialism is sneering at middle-class women for hiring cleaners, but not at middle-class men who expect their wives to pick up their dirty boxers for free. Brocialism is the men who call themselves feminists, but seem to be more interested in telling women what they’re doing wrong than in giving up any of their own power. Brocialism is blaming the EU for depressing men’s wages – but not acknowledging that the EU has driven workers’ rights for women.
Brocialism is Owen Jones telling women who disagree with them that they’re on the “wrong side of history”. It’s Russell Brand offering a revolution in which women figure firstly as “your bird”. It’s the American Democrats who were so wedded to Sanders over Clinton that they ultimately helped to ensure that Trump won. It’s the men who sexually assaulted women in the Occupy camps, and the kangaroo rape trials of the Socialist Workers Party. It’s the abuse and death threats thrown by Corbyn supporters at female MPs deemed insufficiently loyal to the cause, such as Luciana Berger or Thangam Debbonaire. It’s Jeremy Corbyn wanting to overthrow capitalism, until it comes to women being prostituted, when he says that the only “civilised” option is a free market.
It’s also a tediously old phenomenon. When Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790, it was because she was wholly committed to revolution. She followed it with A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 because she’d realised that revolution was a male-only affair. “Consider,” she pleaded, “whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves, respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women.” It was not considered. As historian Rachel Hewitt explains, the woman question in the 18th century was fought mainly between the reactionary position that “a woman was the property of one man” and the radical belief that “she was the property of many”.
The same false choice persists. From the right, low-income women are coerced to remain chastely within the family (Iain Duncan Smith designed Universal Credit so that it would be paid to a single recipient in each household in order to “prevent family breakdown”, or, rather, stop women from leaving). From the left, the men at the top of the Labour Party propose full decriminalisation of prostitution – that is, not only ending the unjust criminalisation of women in prostitution, but also lifting all sanctions on the pimps and punters who exploit and endanger those women. For women, this means either having one master, or having several. There is no alternative here to subjugation.
Yet left-wing politics is supposed to offer alternatives. As the Scottish socialist Alasdair Gray wrote, it’s animated by a belief in possibility: “Our nations are not built instinctively by our bodies, like beehives; they are works of art, like ships, carpets and gardens. The possible shapes of them are endless.” Feminism shares that belief, which is why the movement’s key thinkers and activists have often (though not always) come from a radical or socialist background: because feminism is, ultimately, a radical project and a redistributive one. It is about claiming rights and recognition for labour: the unpaid domestic labour that’s worth 56% of GDP and of which women do 60% more than men; the labour of bearing and caring for children, without which there would be no people and no economy at all.
It is about taking away from men the unjust power they assert over women, and giving women authority over themselves. It is difficult to articulate just how transformative that would be. The sex-class system is so entrenched that people still clutch at the belief – despite all evidence – that something in our essential nature makes women domesticated and decorative, and men bold and competitive.
In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone described how “so profound a change cannot be easily fit into traditional categories of thought… not because these categories do not apply but because they are not big enough: radical feminism bursts though them. If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution we would use it.”
And this is why the left has ultimately so often failed to give feminism a home: because, whatever their position on the left-right spectrum, too many men have been and still are unwilling to surrender the dominance they have over women. Feminism has always stood against right-wing chauvinism, but frustration with the macho left has helped to form much of the women’s movement’s most important theory and activism.